Billie Piper in the new Richard Bean play at the National, Ivo van Hove directs Juliette Binoche in Antigone and more

Billie Piper (with Jonjo O'Neill) in The Effect, the last National Theatre production she appeared in. Photo Ellie Kurtz

Billie Piper (with Jonjo O’Neill) in The Effect, the last National Theatre production she appeared in. Photo Ellie Kurtz

In an infrequent series of posts, these are the theatre news that got me excited in recent weeks:

– Word is Billie Piper is in rehearsals for the new Richard Bean play at the National. The play – with the provisional title Hacked – is directed by Nic Hytner, revolves around the phone hacking scandal and should start performances at the Lyttelton as early as June. As there is no official announcement regarding performance dates or tickets yet, the National Theatre is cutting it very fine with this one.

– Another company cutting it fine is the new Jamie Lloyd season at the Trafalgar studios: after the announcement a month ago that Martin Freeman will be playing Richard III with performances starting in July, no further information has been forthcoming. I loved the trio of plays produced last year and I look forward to the new season with – hopefully – a full programme announced soon.

– In other exciting news, Ivo Van Hove will be directing Juliette Binoche in Antigone, with performances at the Barbican next year. Continue reading

Review: Othello at the National Theatre (starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear)

Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson

Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson

For pure heart-fluttering excitement,  the combination of Shakespeare and big name actors is hard to beat. Macbeth and James McAvoy earlier this year, Richard II and David Tennant from October, and somewhere in the middle Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear punctuate the theatrical year with spine tingling anticipation. Shakespeare’s plays breath with charismatic actors who can take reign of uncompromising characters, and Nic Hytner’s production, visceral and sharp, delivers in those terms.

Having said that, the first twenty minutes were not as promising. Pubs and alleyways and indistinct boardrooms, soldiers on leave in ill fitting civilian clothes (and ill at ease civilian mode),  the setting was too drab to set the imagination alight. Landing on Cyprus, the story started gathering momentum, but it was Iago manipulating Cassio in one almighty brawl that set the production on its proper course. Once the seeds of jealousy and doubt are planted in Othello’s mind, the story started hurling to the finish like a wild horse: beautiful and scary and dangerous. Continue reading

Review: Cocktail Sticks, by Alan Bennett, at the National Theatre

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Photo by Jayne West.

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Photo by Jayne West.

Looking at the poster, you inevitably do a double take: Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett looks astoundingly like the real thing. It’s not the face, the hair or the glasses, it’s the posture. Shoulders low but a little stiff, hands close to the body, minimal and strictly necessary movement.

And then the performance starts and the voice seals the transformation. In years to come, when visual memory fades and echoic memory holds better, I will have a hard time connecting Alex Jennings with this performance. The voice is so much like Alan Bennett’s I need to make a point to remember it’s not the writer performing his own words. Continue reading

Review: People by Alan Bennett at the National Theatre

Frances de la Tour as Dorothy, Linda Bassett as Iris. Photo Alastair Muir

“Decay is a kind of progress”. Alan Bennett’s new play is about people: people you want around, people who spoil things, people who let you down, people who can’t turn back the clock or move forward.  And when it focuses on people, it does what an Alan Bennett play does best: sees in them colours nobody else can see.

The problem is the play often strays away and loses its way. There are points to be made and they are made again and again. Some characters, like Miles Jupp’s Bevan and Nicholas le Prevost’s Lumsden, are little more than mouthpieces and take up too much time. A cheeky business with an adult film is appropriately silly and perfectly enjoyable but eventually it can’t resist temptation (pun intended) and starts straining credibility.  There is repetition and deviation (even if it avoids hesitation), and in those moments the play feels vague, unsettled. Even time has a hazy quality: the characters talk about the past as if it is a fairy tale. Continue reading

In Praise of Bad Productions (or what I learned from watching Damned by Despair)

There is a storm brewing in the air. I haven’t got around to writing my own review of Damned by Despair yet (Update: you can find my full review here), but it’s obvious it provokes extreme reactions: revstan liked it a lot, but there are ramblings on twitter by people who hated it with passion and commitment. One particularly militant theatregoer has written an open letter to Nic Hytner to withdraw the production “for the sake of the reputation of the National Theatre and and any compassion you have for the unfortunate actors taking part in it” (posted at the National Theatre facebook page). Continue reading

Review: Timon of Athens at the National Theatre

Simon Russell Beale and company at Timon of Athens. Photo Johan Persson

At the interval of the National Theatre production, my friend revstan and I were having a quick peak at the wikipedia entry for Timon of Athens (we were wondering about authoring issues if you need to know), and immediately started questioning this wikipedia statement: “[Timon Of Athens] is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most obscure and difficult works”. Watching the production directed by Nic Hytner, I can’t see what’s difficult about this play.

In fact, the first thought that crossed my mind when the performance started was how 21st century the play feels. I don’t merely mean it has contemporary echoes. The impression left by the production is that the play had to wait four hundred years to find its proper setting. When Flavia said: “They answer, in a joint and corporate voice, …”, I had to look the quote up and make sure Nic Hytner hadn’t tampered with the language (he hadn’t). Shakespeare’s plot, language and characters find the perfect setting in Hytner’s modern production (21st century London complete with Occupy tents, riots and renaming of art spaces after rich donors – wouldn’t it be fun to watch the production alongside the National’s rich corporate partners?) that it’s hard to think it done any other way. Continue reading